Pictured here with Junior pupils quizzing him on his in-depth knowledge of ‘Harry Potter’, in an interview for Insight magazine Head Master Mr Stuart McPherson talks about his career before teaching and what makes a good leader. Interview by Year 13 students, Roy Green and Isabelle Ritchie.
How did you get into teaching?
I got into teaching in both my job in Sydney and my job at Eton for one year and in both cases it grew into a much longer period of time. In Sydney one year became 10, and at Eton one year became 15. That seems to be the story of my life – except for my marriage, which I never intended to be a one-year experiment. I didn’t set out to be a teacher;
I thought I might want to go into the City. I did my teacher training in the job and found it was something that I enjoyed and wanted to do as a career.
What makes a good leader?
I think that someone who is a good leader is someone who knows how to listen to the people who she or he is supposed to be leading, because you’re only as good as your communication with people. You can’t really understand what you’re leading unless you’re listening to the people who are working with you.
So, listening, I would say. I think it is also about remembering what it was like to be led as a younger teacher, or as a junior in a business or a firm. To remember what you thought you needed yourself from your leaders. I also think it is very important to lead by example, to practise what you preach, not to complain and to be positive.
Has the step up from being a housemaster been difficult? What have the changes been like?
It is an interesting question. Being a housemaster at Eton is a really demanding job because you don’t have as much assistance as you get as a housemaster in other types of schools. Effectively, you’re on duty six days a week and so it’s a long haul.
One of the things about being a housemaster that I don’t miss is the feeling late in the evening when you would like to go to bed but you can’t. Being a housemaster is a huge amount of fun – talking to boys (in my case it was boys) in the corridor late at night is enjoyable – you develop a good relationship. The boys, mostly, understand you are the boss, but you don’t have to behave like the boss all of the time. I really enjoyed that side of the job.
Do you feel that this one-to-one relationship is lost slightly when you become the head of a school?
I think there’s a danger that it can be and so I’m keen to find ways to keep in touch with the pupils of the School. Having the door open in the mornings is one way of doing that, but also events and gatherings that the School offers are opportunities to practise what I remember of being a housemaster. But yes, it is a fundamentally different experience.
Having girls in the School is a major difference between my previous two schools and here. Of course there’s a place for single-sex education, and I loved my time in single-sex schools, but being in a co-ed school feels like you are part of the real world; you can have conversations with pupils and with staff about the challenges facing young people in the real world because you are in the real world, in the sense of being males and females together under the same roofs.
And, clearly, a massive difference is that Worth has a monastic community here and the relationship between the School and the monastery is very central to the way the School works. The depth of Benedictine tradition here, and the way the School interacts with what happens in the Abbey, is fundamentally different to almost every other school in the country.
What would you say makes Worth unique? What was your main attraction to Worth?
Everything that you say about the School, everything you say you want to do in the School, when you’re thinking about the School, you always have to test these things against the real and stated values of this place, which are wrapped up in the rule of St Benedict. There might be different kinds of schools, where values are kind of sprinkled like decoration over the top of everything the school does, but ultimately they can be dispensed with in any corner of the school because they are simply decoration.
It’s not like that here: I won’t do anything that interferes with the fundamental values of the place. And there’s no guardian of that; it seems somehow to be in the bricks of the School, like tradition – which is interesting in such a young institution. I think that’s what makes it different, and that’s one of the things that attracted me to Worth.
What also attracted me to Worth was the Abbey Church – my three younger children were here on youth retreats for three years before we knew very much about the School. Although coming to Worth was, in some ways, an upheaval for the family – moving to a different part of the country and so forth – it also felt like coming to a home we already had.
If you could organise a school trip on anything, what and where would it be?
I would like to take a group of pupils to somewhere like Jerusalem or the West Bank; somewhere they can simultaneously experience what was once the great promise of peace for the world and see how complicated the whole thing has become. To ponder solutions to these kinds of crises that cause such immense suffering. It would be great to visit the wonderful buildings of Jerusalem but, of course, you can’t do that without getting involved intellectually and emotionally in the world’s tremendous problems.
Where do you see Worth in five years’ time?
There’s more to co-education than just having boys and girls together in a school. Co-education is also about attitude, about language, about respect for each other. All of these things are evident at Worth, but there is work we can continue to do – it’s what the world is like. I think that a building that allows co-education to function properly at the top of the school would be ideal.
This feature was first published in the Winter 2015 edition of Insight magazine.